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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas: No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 (1801) [13’38]; No. 15 in D, Op. 28, ‘Pastorale’ (1801) [21’15]; No. 16 in G, Op. 31 No. 1 (1802) [24’01].
Artur Schnabel (piano)
Rec. Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London, on April 10th-11th, 1933 (No. 14), February 3rd and 17th, 1933 (No. 15) and November 1935 and January 15th, 1937 (No. 16). ADD
Complete Beethoven Sonata Society recordings vol. 5
NAXOS GREAT PIANISTS 8.110759 [58’54]


These Beethoven Society recordings (issued via HMV) have achieved legendary status, and rightly so. There is a wealth of experience on display here. Taking the sonatas chronologically makes for interesting listening (the juxtaposition of the ‘Moonlight’ with the ‘Pastorale’ is a fertile one, for example). It is also true to say that the first of the Op. 31 set is the least well-known of the three. A shame, and Schnabel’s advocacy certainly makes one wonder why this should be the case.

The disc, however, opens with the most famous of them all. A ‘Moonlight’, here, that is on the swift side in its first movement, but is nevertheless wonderfully free. Pedalling is superb – just the right amount, but no smudging. Balancing this, the flowing, delicate Allegretto leads to a furiously fast ‘Presto agitato’. The recording, unfortunately, takes on a metallic edge above forte and, despite the prevailing velocity, Schnabel fails to ignite as, say, Pollini can (live, at least). Nevertheless, the Sonata as a complete entity unfolds with a compelling sense of continuing drama.

The simplicity of the opening movement of the ‘Pastorale’ acts as aural balm after the flow of angst of Op. 27 No. 2’s close. The slow movement (Andante) is the highlight of this account, however. It flows entirely naturally, under an umbrella of sadness. Schnabel conjures up real stillness here. His simplicity of utterance in the finale speaks more than any more interventionist approach. Marvellous playing.

And finally, the under-appreciated Op. 31 No. 1. Here Schnabel really does give his interpretative all. There is a feather-light sensitivity, and he finds wit in the non-synchronous attack of chords. Finger-work is exemplary throughout. Quasi-extempore filigree in the lovely Adagio grazioso enables the listener to forget any hiss, while later on Schnabel chooses to highlight the modernist in Beethoven (around the five-minute mark).

The finale is a revelation. Even without seeing the tempo indication, one would instinctively know it as Allegretto. The main body of the movement is full of light and fun, but the truly illuminating moment comes with the slower presentation of themes towards the very end. Schnabel makes it sound as if Beethoven has picked up his music objects and is examining them thoughtfully, from various angles. Thought-provoking and entirely convincing.

Superb transfers complete the excellence of this issue. Essential listening.

Colin Clarke


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